Dear Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
I write to you as a citizen of this country, a consumer of its resources and a benefactor of its largesse. As a citizen, I have what your Environment Minister called a ‘vested interest’ in my own survival- from the quality of air in my city to the quality of water piped into my home, the health of forests that serve as watersheds to the well-being of Indian farmers who provide for me in times of increasing distress.
You could call me a 5-star activist for wanting to talk about things such as the right to a clean environment, freedom of expression, the right to work and the right to Free Prior Informed Consent in the same breath.
I have to admit it took me a while, as a citizen and as a witness confronted with mountains of corruption and subversion of the law, to accept that I had inalienable, defensible human rights, even if there weren’t enough laws to grant them legitimacy.
I strongly believe that my countrymen and women deserve the same dignity and liberties accorded to citizens of any other nation. From my travels across the country and inquiry into social conflicts at the intersection of business and human rights over the last five years, I would argue that the need to guarantee rights is even more acute. For rights assume even more importance where they have been systemically denied, where the risks of fighting for them are far greater, and amongst communities who have seen little to nothing of the economic or social development undertaken in their name.
We are at a cusp of our nation’s history- economically, politically and socially. While a large portion of us now walk the liberal road of wider economic choices, far greater millions are yet to see evidence of basic development, and are being pushed into wider chasms of inequity.
Almost a year into your term, you stand as a living, elected embodiment of the hopes of millions that change is necessary and so is development. My question to you is, what form will this change take? Who will it take with it? And why do you see rights as inimical to- and not a part of- this process?
Your campaign rode on a clarion call against corruption and crony capitalism. You have said your government has tried to counter this through transparent bidding procedures for natural resources such as mines and coal. However, how truly fair or transparent or accountable are these systems to the millions who stand to be affected?
Transparency is being able to communicate these complex norms to all those who will be affected by them. Fairness is ensuring that all stakeholders are involved in the process, duly informed, given notice of decisions and compensated. Accountability is involving all stakeholders in decision-making processes through conducting assessments and cost-benefit analyses and arriving at a way forward together. It arises from being able to honestly communicate back to companies these deliberations and what is at stake.
However, by removing safeguards on social impact assessment and acquiring the consent of affected communities’ for a series of different projects, you say that businesses don’t have the time to meaningfully consult with stakeholders, ignoring your obligations to protect citizens from human rights abuses. Especially after the arbitrary allocation of our natural resources that you have sought to confront in your role as a custodian, doesn’t it become even more important to have community and civil society checks and balances for those seeking to acquire these resources? Instead, we have been repeatedly portrayed as obstructionists in the path of our own interests, and told that these are not exercises worth investing in.
Science tells us that it takes millennia of matter under pressure to produce the minerals we seek to extract to propel our growth story. Yet, it has also taken us millennia to arrive at a point where our rights and guarantees are recognized by law, where some have the privilege and means to express ourselves and possibly be heard. The language of our laws, let alone an assumed alphabet of SIAs (Social Impact Assessments) and PPPs (Public-Private Partnerships), has still not trickled down to millions who are yet to have teachers in their schools regularly enough or trainings in their own languages to ensure they know how to exercise their rights.
Your Mann Ki Baats, chai pe charchas and online transparency initiatives are great signs that our government is open to engagement. Then why do away with public hearings, gram sabhas and social impact assessments? Why fear people exercising their right to stand up and be counted, consulted and compensated? Why further silence those whose struggles for accountability are scarcely heard? What could be more in the nation’s interest than to protect the law and the resources of the land? Why then harass its advocates, and limit avenues for remedy?
You of all people know the power of consent, and the reverse of it, when demonstrated electorally. You called out against people using the Land Acquisition bill for their own gains, and this is what communities have been wary of for centuries. Rights are not supposed to come with so many exemptions to the government of the day. The Land Acquisition Act and the Forest Rights Act were born after years of struggle, upheaval and bloodshed that still continue to play out in the country’s margins. India’s environmental laws emerged from the fallout of Bhopal, which we have still not been able to look in the face, assume accountability for and clean up. It’s time for us to acknowledge that the lack of trust goes back centuries, even before the 1894 Land Acquisition Act. While development is an imperative of the day, a one-way Mann ki baat cannot suffice, especially if it means closing other channels of communication and critique.
To not acknowledge or to erode these hard fought gains in the interest of faster investments would take us centuries behind in opening the channels of dialogue- between citizens, civil society, corporates and government. And that is not something we have the time for, as a country that both prides itself as a democracy and an economic power that wants to conduct business on a truly international stage.
To conclude, at the risk of sounding trite, permit me to paraphrase Tagore and project aloud. Of an India where dignity, consent and respect are non-negotiable. Where development is development for all and stems from dialogue. Where there is room and respect for dissent as a sign of how secure and mature we are as a democracy. And where the doors of justice remain open for anyone who seeks remedy.
Into that paradigm of people-centric development, dear Prime Minister, let our country awake.